Plant of the Week
Latin: Phytolacca americana
In April 2000, a rural tradition slipped quietly into the past with few
noticing and still fewer caring. Allen Canning Company of Siloam Springs canned
its last batch of poke sallet greens. From now on you will have to gather your
own if the craving for poke greens overtakes you as the brown beans simmer in
Pokeberry or pokeweed, Phytolacca americana, is a ubiquitous weed from
Maine to Miami to Mexico, so not surprising our forefathers found a use for it,
in fact several uses. It is a stout herbaceous perennial that, in good soil, can
form a thigh-size taproot. The taproot is poisonous and there are reports of
careless gardeners mistaking poke roots for horseradish roots with dire
consequences. Native Americans used poke roots as a laxative and an emetic.
From the crown of the plant emerge leafy, asparagus-like shoots that are
edible during the first days of spring. If these smooth, purple-tinged shoots
are allowed to grow they can reach six to 10-feet tall with a comparable spread.
By midsummer, plants begin producing six-inch long racemes of greenish white
apetalous flowers. The flowers give rise to juicy, pea-size berries that
transition from green to pink to dark purple. Flowering continues until frost
with plants having flowers and berries at the same time. The berries are a
favorite food for berry-eating songbirds.
Poke gets its name from an Indian word "pokan" which means any plant
used to produce a red or yellow dye. It even has a political connection. Leaves
of pokeberry were worn on the lapels of supporters of the first dark-horse
candidate for president, James Polk who served from 1845 to 1849 and for whom
Polk County is named.
Pokeweed enjoyed a good reputation across the south as a spring green because
it was one of the first edible herbs to appear, giving a much-needed break from
the beans, cornbread and salt pork diet of winter. As Arkansas hill folk gave up
the land during the Depression and moved away, they took with them the taste for
Arkansas processors have canned poke commercially since at least the middle
years of the last century. It has always been wild-harvested even though Dr.
John Bowers, a former colleague in the horticulture department, made efforts in
the 1950’s to turn pokeweed into a legitimate vegetable. As late as 1990 at
least two processing plants continued the tradition, Bush Brothers of Tennessee
and Allen of Siloam Springs.
Surprisingly, one of the best markets for canned poke sallet was California.
Delbert Allen speculated in a 1989 article that the California market is an echo
from past Dust Bowl and Depression era emigrants attempting to reconnect with
their roots. But, times change. People get old and die.
John Williams, the canning supervisor at Allen Canning, says "The decision to
stop processing poke was primarily because of the difficulty of finding people
interested in picking poke and bring it to our buying locations." Also, poke
processing was never a significant item in their multimillion-dollar enterprise,
so it just became more bother than it was worth.
Poke is primarily eaten in the same way as other spring greens, but some peel
and fry the stalks much as done with okra pods. A good poke green recipe calls
for a large batch of green leaves to be parboiled for three minutes then
drained, parboiled a second time and then drained again and cooked until tender.
Fry three strips of bacon, a chopped green onion and then add the drained
greens. Get this hot and then add four eggs for scrambling. Check the
website for over 130 poke recipes.
By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension News -
May 2, 2003
The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.
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